American Viola Society Festival and Primrose Competition

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Making Your Bach Better

July 22, 2016, 3:04 PM · Does playing the music of J.S. Bach make you a better musician? Does it improve your chops as a violinist or violist? Does Bach heal your soul?

That's what I wondered, when I heard the name of this lecture by violist David Rose at the American Viola Society Festival in Oberlin last month: "Bach Makes You Better."

"For me this has been a literal truth," Rose explained. "I believe Bach does make you better, at least in your heart and spirit."

For those who'd like to make their Bach better, Rose had some great ideas, culled from his years of playing and studying Early Music, as well as teaching a course on solo Bach at State University of New York in Fredonia, where he is Associate Professor of Viola. Take, for example, this unique way that he makes a point about "syllables" in Bach:

In other words, the natural adjustments we make to sing well can guide us in creating good bowings for Bach. If it's easiest to sing short syllables in a passage with large intervals, then it might be easiest to use short bows in a similar passage on viola or violin. Keep reading...

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Developing Your Musical Mental Map with Melissa Gerber Knecht

July 18, 2016, 8:28 AM · Of the young students who begin violin and viola lessons, some 80 percent quit during the first year.

That rather sobering statistic was cited by Hillsdale College Strings Studies Professor Melissa Gerber Knecht, based on anecdotal observations by Shar. She went on to say that, of the 20 percent who continue, many hit a wall when they arrive at pieces such as Haydn's G major Violin Concerto or Telemann's Viola Concerto in G major (Suzuki Book 4 level or so).

After that, "just a small percentage move on to that next level of playing," Knecht said at a lecture called "Cows, Chess and Music Expertise: Perception, Comprehension and Memory in Music," at the American Viola Society Festival at Oberlin in June.

Why is that the case? And what can be done about it?

Melissa Gerber KnechtKnecht has been searching for the answer to those questions for the last 10 years in her research on mental musical patterns. She also has created a website called Developing Your Musical Mental Map to help people understand and use her findings. (Her book, by the same name, will be available this fall through Shar Music.)

Some might say that "talent" that gets certain students past the difficulties -- and a lack of it leaves others struggling. Though we have a lay notion of what constitutes "talent," is there any science behind it? Keep reading...

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Master Class with Peter Slowik: the Viola in Chamber Music

July 8, 2016, 10:13 AM · For viola, the juicy stuff is in the chamber music repertoire.

That was one takeaway from a master class by Oberlin Conservatory viola professor Peter Slowik, at the American Viola Society Festival in June. Slowik is a professor of viola and head of the string department at Oberlin Conservatory, and before that he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Northwestern University. Chamber music has long been a passion for Slowik, who also is a founder and artistic director of Credo Chamber Music, a faith-based summer chamber music program.

Certainly orchestral excerpts are an art -- one of Slowik's students called them a "series of secret handshakes" to get into an orchestra. But chamber music requires a distinct set of musical, personal and technical skills. While orchestral music awards those with skills such as precision, blending, repeatability and control, chamber music rewards more active skills such as creativity, power, projection, strong technique, tone color, articulation and flexibility.

In chamber music, the viola can play a number of roles: the foundation, the middle voice, the overtone that floats above, the melody or the rhythmic center. It's important, in chamber music, for the violist to know his or her particular role in a given piece -- and how to play it.

Sometimes that role is surprisingly bold. Slowik remembers a chamber music passage that was marked pianissimo - he had been playing it softly, as marked. He was performing with the cellist Leonard Rose, who suggested he play it much louder, much rougher. "I sounded really gross to myself," Slowik said, "but the recording sounded great!" Keep reading...

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